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A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Natali Helberger about AI in journalism

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Interview with Natali Helberger, distinguished university professor of law and digital technology, with a special focus on AI, and affiliated with the Institute for Information Law (IVIR) of the University of Amsterdam. Her research focus is on how digitization, algorithms and AI are transforming the media and its implications for public values, diversity in the media landscape and the media’s democratic role.


What have you learned from your own research on the impact of news recommendation systems?

On the upside, users appreciate that recommendation systems can free up their time and help them in getting better information. It’s something that journalism scholars and science fiction authors have dreamed about for centuries and now these visions are finally becoming reality. On the downside, users are concerned about the privacy of their data and about the diversity of automatically recommended news. If an algorithm only functions as an echo chamber of the opinions that somebody already has and only gives a narrow subset of information, then it is a badly designed algorithm. It is therefore crucial that media have to think better about how they use a news recommendation tool according to the journalistic values that they consider important. And for every organization that can be a bit different.


Until now only bigger news organizations can afford experimenting with AI. What does that mean for journalism in general?

If only the bigger media companies experiment with AI, it means that smaller media companies will depend on off-the-shelf AI-tools. Thats’s a problem, because a tool needs to be optimized for a particular news outlet. With generic software you have very little influence to adjust the tool to your own journalistic values. We should think of how we can help smaller news media to invest more in R&D. In the fall of this year we will start a new research project investigating how local media might use AI. Which opportunities do they see? Which issues do they run into? How can they integrate their own values into the AI-tool? We will compare local media in the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and the UK.


In Europe, a lot of tech innovation in journalism is funded by the Google News Initiative. How do you look at that?

It’s really cool that they do it. I have seen amazing projects. But unfortunately it also turns out that once a projects stops, the work dies. We really need more sustainable funding which is at the same time also independent. Google is a company, right? Media play a key role in our democracy and they should always be independent. For news media in the 21st century, with severe competition from social media platforms, sustainable technological development is crucial. That takes time. Developing the technology is only the first step. Funding shouldn’t stop there. After the development comes the implementation, the testing, the tweaking. I am really worried about the lack of structural independent funding for R&D in journalism.

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